September/October 2017 – Vol. 30 No. 1

Strategies for Assessing Student Understanding in the NGSS Classroom

Posted: Wednesday, April 1st, 2015

by Sara Dozier

Like me, you are probably excited about the opportunities that the Next Generation Science Standards offer students and teachers. For the first time in 17 years, our science standards are asking us to engage our students in science learning that is engaging, meaningful and just plain fun. In addition to our excitement, though, there is also some apprehension.

One concern teachers share is how accountability will work for the California NGSS. What will “the test” look like? The new NGSS-aligned California science assessment system is in the early design stages so we don’t yet know for certain. The State Implementation Plan for California NGSS indicates a pilot of the new NGSS-aligned monitoring assessment system in 2016-17, with the assessment system to be fully operational in 2018-19. Some teachers may consider waiting until we can see the new assessment system before they change their teaching and assessment practices. However, we have a gift of time to teach students how to express their science knowledge in all three dimensions of NGSS on assessments and use the rich information from these tasks to guide instruction. There is no time like the present to start making the shifts needed in the long run.

But what does three-dimensional assessment look like, anyway? And, how can teachers start shifting without burying themselves in the work of writing and grading these new assessments? The steps below describe one way to start transitioning during the awareness and transition phases. During implementation, we will need assessments that are fully aligned with the Performance Expectations. By starting now, we can start teaching our students and ourselves these skills in parallel with the work of transitioning our curriculum toward the NGSS. Build on your existing curriculum to start shifting now using the steps described below.

Go slowly and start with what you already have.  Three-dimensional learning means that you have a task that assesses the Disciplinary Core Ideas, Science and Engineering Practices and the Cross Cutting Concepts. To assess understanding, start by using the NGSS-aligned work students do as they are learning, rather than creating new, separate NGSS tasks for learning and tasks for assessment.

  • Example Lesson Embedded Assessment: the familiar Can Crusher activity
  • Traditional Demonstration: Boil 10 mL of water in an empty soda can. Using tongs, invert the can into cold water. The can crushes.
  • Modifications for NGSS: After teacher approval of experimental design, students investigate the effect of different variables on the phenomenon. (See NGSS Appendix D for a detailed lesson sequence that utilizes this experiment.)

Don’t try to fit all three dimensions into one question. Teachers are experienced writers of items (test questions, writing or discussion prompts, etc.) that assess the Disciplinary Core Ideas, and we should incorporate those items as we develop new tasks. Learning and assessment tasks should not be a single item, but contain multiple items that collectively measure all three dimensions.

Examine the Science and Engineering Practices. To assess the Science and Engineering Practices, choose the practice most aligned to your instructional task. For the Can Crusher example, we explore the Practice of Planning and Carrying Out Investigations. Refer to the NGSS Appendix F and find your grade band in the progression. Identify just one bullet point that you will focus on in the lesson.

A grade 6-8 example: “Evaluate the accuracy of various methods for collecting data.” To address this, you might start with a whole class discussion of how different groups measured the dependent variable or use an exit slip to see how they they understand the role of data collection in understanding the properties of different states of matter. You could add an analysis question to their lab write-up asking, ”How did you choose to collect data in your experiment? If you could revise your data collection plan to be more accurate, what would you change and how would it improve your accuracy?”

The important part is that you understand how they are evaluating accuracy in the context of this scientific understanding.

Frame student responses through the lens of the Crosscutting Concepts. Assessing the Crosscutting Concepts may seem more challenging. I suggest a similar approach, this time referring to NGSS Appendix G, identifying a bullet from “Progression of the Crosscutting Concepts,” and eliciting your students’ thinking through that lens.

For example, the Crosscutting Concept of Cause and Effect provides this description: “Relationships can be classified as causal or correlational, and correlation does not necessarily imply causation.” In the Can Crusher example students might identify the observed effect and describe their understanding of the cause. This could be followed by a discussion of the evidence supporting the claim that the condensation of water vapor actually caused the collapse, rather than just appearing to happen at the same time.

This may be the first time your students have been asked to distinguish between correlation and causation in science.  This is a great opportunity to use classroom discourse to build an understanding of the distinction while at the same time you listen to their conversations to assess their understanding.

Use your questions to get inside their heads. All tasks should give you a clear window into how your students use their science knowledge, not just whether they wrote the “right” answer. Arriving at a normative, developmentally appropriate understanding of science is coupled with the process students use to gain that understanding. Writing prompts and questions that elicit student explanations of their thought process is in sharp contrast to multiple-choice items. These items are challenging for teachers to design, made doubly so by students’ unfamiliarity with answering them. Teachers and students need practice to become comfortable with this type of learning and assessment. Start with items you currently use, and write down some possible responses or look at actual student work from past experiences. With these anticipated responses in mind, determine whether this particular item provides deep insight to the students’ thinking or just the opportunity to demonstrate rote learning (e.g. define vocabulary, run an algorithm). Modify these items to encourage students to share their thinking.

Don’t worry about how to grade these new items. Grading is an important part of our work, as it provides clear feedback to students, parents, and outside entities about the student’s achievement. While we are exploring this new type of assessment, it will be difficult to assign proficiency-based grades. With practice you will be much more comfortable identifying three-dimensional learning goals and assigning grades based on their progress toward the goal. When you feel ready to change your grading structure, see Formative Assessment & Standards‑Based Grading by Marzano for one creative approach.

Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good. As we move toward the 2018-19 operational California NGSS-aligned assessment, we need to build our students’ capacity to demonstrate their ability to use their science knowledge as they engage in the Science and Engineering Practices as the Crosscutting Concepts. It may be a bit bumpy at first, but remember teachers and students alike are all learning this new way of teaching and learning. As teachers, we need to find ways to elicit responses that allow us to see inside our students’ thinking. As you shift your classroom culture and teaching practices toward the NGSS, keep these ideas in mind to prepare to enter the implementation phase of California NGSS.

Other NGSS Assessment Resources

Concord Consortium NGSS Assessment Project- Sample Assessment Tasks

California NGSS Implementation Plan

Developing Assessments for the Next Generation Science Standards, NRC Committee Report, June 2014

Invitational Research Symposium on Science Assessment, September 24–25, 2013

Sara Dozier is Science Coordinator, Integrated Middle School Science Partnership at the Alameda County Office of Education.  She was invited to write for CCS by Lisa Hegdahl.

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From time to time CSTA receives contributions from guest contributors. The opinions and views expressed by these contributors are not necessarily those of CSTA. By publishing these articles CSTA does not make any endorsements or statements of support of the author or their contribution, either explicit or implicit. All links to outside sources are subject to CSTA’s Disclaimer Policy:

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State Schools Chief Tom Torlakson Announces 2017 Finalists for Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching

Posted: Wednesday, September 20th, 2017

SACRAMENTO—State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson today nominated eight exceptional secondary mathematics and science teachers as California finalists for the 2017 Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching (PAEMST).

“These teachers are dedicated and accomplished individuals whose innovative teaching styles prepare our students for 21st century careers and college and develop them into the designers and inventors of the future,” Torlakson said. “They rank among the finest in their profession and also serve as wonderful mentors and role models.”

The California Department of Education (CDE) partners annually with the California Science Teachers Association and the California Mathematics Council to recruit and select nominees for the PAEMST program—the highest recognition in the nation for a mathematics or science teacher. The Science Finalists will be recognized at the CSTA Awards Luncheon on Saturday, October 14, 2017. Learn More…

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

Thriving in a Time of Change

Posted: Wednesday, September 13th, 2017

by Jill Grace

By the time this message is posted online, most schools across California will have been in session for at least a month (if not longer, and hat tip to that bunch!). Long enough to get a good sense of who the kids in your classroom are and to get into that groove and momentum of the daily flow of teaching. It’s also very likely that for many of you who weren’t a part of a large grant initiative or in a district that set wheels in motion sooner, this is the first year you will really try to shift instruction to align to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). I’m not going to lie to you, it’s a challenging year – change is hard. Change is even harder when there’s not a playbook to go by.  But as someone who has had the very great privilege of walking alongside teachers going through that change for the past two years and being able to glimpse at what this looks like for different demographics across that state, there are three things I hope you will hold on to. These are things I have come to learn will overshadow the challenge: a growth mindset will get you far, one is a very powerful number, and it’s about the kids. Learn More…

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Written by Jill Grace

Jill Grace

Jill Grace is a Regional Director for the K-12 Alliance and is President of CSTA.

If You Are Not Teaching Science Then You Are Not Teaching Common Core

Posted: Thursday, August 31st, 2017

by Peter A’Hearn 

“Science and Social Studies can be taught for the last half hour of the day on Fridays”

– Elementary school principal

Anyone concerned with the teaching of science in elementary school is keenly aware of the problem of time. Kids need to learn to read, and learning to read takes time, nobody disputes that. So Common Core ELA can seem like the enemy of science. This was a big concern to me as I started looking at the curriculum that my district had adopted for Common Core ELA. I’ve been through those years where teachers are learning a new curriculum, and know first-hand how a new curriculum can become the focus of attention- sucking all the air out of the room. Learn More…

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Written by Peter AHearn

Peter AHearn

Peter A’Hearn is the Region 4 Director for CSTA.

Tools for Creating NGSS Standards Based Lessons

Posted: Tuesday, August 29th, 2017

by Elizabeth Cooke

Think back on your own experiences with learning science in school. Were you required to memorize disjointed facts without understanding the concepts?

Science Education Background

In the past, science education focused on rote memorization and learning disjointed ideas. Elementary and secondary students in today’s science classes are fortunate now that science instruction has shifted from students demonstrating what they know to students demonstrating how they are able to apply their knowledge. Science education that reflects the Next Generation Science Standards challenges students to conduct investigations. As students explore phenomena and discrepant events they engage in academic discourse guided by focus questions from their teachers or student generated questions of that arise from analyzing data and creating and revising models that explain natural phenomena. Learn More…

Written by Elizabeth Cooke

Elizabeth Cooke

Elizabeth Cooke teaches TK-5 science at Markham Elementary in the Oakland Unified School District, is an NGSS Early Implementer, and is CSTA’s Secretary.

News and Happenings in CSTA’s Region 1 – Fall 2017

Posted: Tuesday, August 29th, 2017

by Marian Murphy-Shaw


This month I was fortunate enough to hear about some new topics to share with our entire region. Some of you may access the online or newsletter options, others may attend events in person that are nearer to you. Long time CSTA member and environmental science educator Mike Roa is well known to North Bay Area teachers for his volunteer work sharing events and resources. In this month’s Region 1 updates I am happy to make a few of the options Mike offers available to our region. Learn More…

Written by Marian Murphy-Shaw

Marian Murphy-Shaw

Marian Murphy-Shaw is the student services director at Siskiyou County Office of Education and is CSTA’s Region 1 Director and chair of CSTA’s Policy Committee.